It has been clear for some time that N95 respirator masks and other high-filtration masks like KN95s and KF94s provide the highest level of protection against the transmission of COVID-19, and that the cloth and surgical masks many Americans wear are inferior. But the government was slow to act on this information. On January 14, the CDC finally updated its face-mask guidance to emphasize the better protection offered by respirators like N95s and KN95s. And now the Biden administration has made 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers across the country — an effort the White House is touting as the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history. Here’s everything we know about the government’s free-mask plan.
Where can people pick up their free N95 masks?
The masks are available at tens of thousands of pharmacies and 100-200 community health centers across the country. Most of the pharmacies that have partnered with the federal government to distribute COVID vaccines are participating in the mask program, according to The Wall Street Journal. A full list of the pharmacy and supermarket pharmacy chains that partner in the federal vaccine program is here. Retail chains participating in the program include:
The free N95s program has been fully up and running as of early February. However, anyone looking to pick up their free masks should contact their local stores to confirm they have them available, as not all locations are participating and some stores have reported that the masks are going fast. Mask shipments were packaged with flyers and signage from the Department of Health and Human Services, and some chains are having greeters hand out masks near their entrance. Other stores are keeping their stock of free N95s behind the counter, so you may need to ask a sales associate for help.
While there had been speculation that Americans might be able to request N95s from the same website where they can order free home COVID tests, so far the masks are only be available for pickup in person.
How many masks will be provided per person?
Three free N95 masks are available per adult. The government is imposing this limit “to ensure broad access for all Americans,” according to a White House official.
What kind of masks will the government provide?
The masks are nonsurgical N95s from the Strategic National Stockpile. All N95s are designed to filter out 95 percent of particles and must be approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Will smaller-size masks for children be available?
Only adult masks are currently available, but the White House official said, “We anticipate making additional, high-quality masks for children available in the near future,” per the Washington Post.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the CDC, does not approve child-sized masks so there are no true N95s for children. However, older children might be able to use some smaller-sized N95s, and there are legitimate KN95 and KF94 masks for children.
Where else can you get N95 and K95 masks?
The free N95 program is not your only option if you want to upgrade your masks. N95 and KN95 masks are widely available, come in a variety of styles, and often cost less than $1.50 each. While some models intended for trade workers and medical professionals can be cumbersome, there are now plenty of comfortable options on the market. It’s worth finding a style you like, as the new CDC guidance notes, “It is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection.”
More “heavy-duty” N95 masks are often sold at hardware stores, and you can find a wide range of respirators at reputable online sellers like Project N95 or Bona Fide Masks. The CDC has a list of NIOSH-approved N95 respirator masks. CDC also maintains a list of counterfeit masks, as many fake N95s and KN95s have surfaced online. KN95s are similar to N95s, but they are made to meet the Chinese rather than the U.S. standard for medical masks.
How many high-filtration masks does the U.S. government already have?
An official at the Department of Health and Human Services told Congress on January 11 that the U.S. stockpile of medical supplies already contains 737 million N95 respirators from 12 different domestic manufacturers — and that the agency is attempting to line up contracts with manufacturers to produce 141 million N95s per month while COVID-19 case numbers remain high. Per the contracts, manufacturers would be able drop production by as much as 30 percent whenever demand dies down.
President Biden said on January 13 that his administration had more than tripled the national stockpile of N95s.
What about the “Masks for All” legislation in Congress?
Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime better-mask advocate, reintroduced the Masks for All Act on January 11. Under the proposed $5 billion bill (which was originally introduced in July 2020 and currently has 15 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 30 co-sponsors in the House), everyone in the U.S. would receive a package of three N95s for free. The legislation would also require the federal government to “use all available authorities,” including the Defense Production Act, to eliminate shortages of N95s, provide them in a range of sizes, and make sure they are rapidly and widely distributed to the public and essential workers. Masks would be made available at various community institutions like post offices, pharmacies, public-transit stations, and schools.
The bill’s prospects in Congress remain unclear, particularly now that the Biden administration is already distributing free masks.
Why has it taken so long for the U.S. government to start providing free high-filtration face masks?
That’s a good question, but better late than never — particularly since providing N95 or other better masks for free to the public will help Americans be prepared for future COVID waves, or COVID variants that might be more transmissible. High-filtration respirators can also be used to protect against other airborne health hazards, like wildfire smoke.
This post has been updated throughout.
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